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Getting Into the Swing of Things


January 7, 2015 by Adina Langer

 2nd century papyrus of Plato's Phaedrus from Oxyrhynchus, reconstructed from several fragments. Background from original replaced with white. From Oxford University's online Oxyrhynchus exhibit. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

2nd century papyrus of Plato’s Phaedrus from Oxyrhynchus, reconstructed from several fragments. Background from original replaced with white. From Oxford University’s online Oxyrhynchus exhibit. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

In just under a week, we will begin our semester-long exploration of the theory and practice of digital history. At this moment, our class lies before us like an empty construction site.  We have cleared the land, and we hold our syllabus blue-prints in our hands.  Next Tuesday, we break ground together and begin the process of building something magnificent.

Before we begin, it is worthwhile to consider history’s past.  History has a history, and it starts with the advent of writing. It is fair to consider the introduction of digital tools into our human toolkit to be a disruptive innovation, changing how we store and access our personal and cultural memories. On a smaller scale, many have lamented the distracting power of the internet and its drains on productivity. But when writing first came on the scene, philosophers worried that it would destroy our ability to remember at all.  Oral tradition promoted both an immediacy to accessing and understanding “truth” and a valuation of the recitation of cultural touchstones. Orators held a high social status and were respected for their skills.

In Plato’s Phaedrus dialogues, Plato and Phaedrus explore the relationship between writing and rhetoric.  They bring up various qualms about the role of writing in culture originating with the ancient Egyptians.  Plato recounts a tale in which the Egyptian god Theuth gives the gift of letters to the people and the King Thamus cautions that the people will not make the best use of this gift:

“It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in

praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters,

This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them

better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit.

Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of

an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his

own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are

the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children

have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have;

for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’

souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to

the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The

specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to

reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the

semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will

have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will

generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show

of wisdom without the reality.”

To Plato, speech was a living thing and writing rendered it dead. Of course, writing (and recording more broadly) has become central to cultural enterprise for most humans across the globe. Most historians would argue that oral history is one way in which past events and attitudes are preserved, but to complete a picture of the past, we must rely on multiple sources, most of them written.

We will delve more deeply into the ways the digital age has reintroduced a measure of ephemerality into the historical record, but it is worth considering the central role of writing in the preservation and crafting of history as we begin to explore the nature and implications of digital history in contemporary society.


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